ow that the dust of the pitched verbal battle that ensued from the ministerial words of wisdom over the lack of ‘world-class’ faculty of the IITs and IIMs has somewhat settled, it is pertinent for us to dig a little deeper and weigh Jairam Ramesh’s observations in their appropriate contextual measures. Talking of his ministry’s decision to establish a National Centre for Marine Biodiversity in Jamnagar, a ‘world-class’ research institute on the model of public-private partnership with Reliance Industries Limited, Ramesh’s statement was a not-so-finely calibrated attempt to bolster a committed neo-liberal government’s still relatively diffident (in face of a small but relatively vocal critics) attempts to progressively withdraw its hands from education and research—and indeed, from the whole of the welfare sector.
The minister stated emphatically that India’s past sixty years of experience has shown that the government set-ups fail to attract young talent and government managed institutions cannot be ‘world-class’. Surveying India’s education and research history of the last sixty years from the elevated vantage point of a ministerial berth, Jairam Ramesh, however, did not consider it necessary to explain the reasons, other than those that further undermine our confidence in the political institution he owes allegiance to by ascribing it with unqualified and inherent limitation, for their failure.
Perhaps that was not the appropriate platform for it; however, in the days that followed, none of our political figures chose to develop and articulate a more nuanced and honest position.
It is true today that the monopoly capital can command to its disposal the kind of money and resources that the government funded institutions can only be envious of, which in turn enables the former to generate the other necessary factors for instituting and maintaining centers of research excellence.
However, it is important to bear in mind the principles on which contemporary corporate capitalism works. An overwhelming proportion of research would necessarily be in the fields that would qualify as lucrative, leaving humanities and liberal arts out on a limb, or abjectly dependent on the liberality of an indulgent patron or a rare institution. While the logic of filtering everything exclusively through the prism of utility is in itself reductive, it is even more flawed to confine it to economic efficacy.
In the defense of humanities
In the defense of the marginalised, it is fair to argue that both humanities and liberal arts still have a lot of social worth and vigour left in them. Any society that aims to stay dynamic and progressive necessarily needs to be aware of and stay alive to its cultural, literary and aesthetic forms of thought and expression, which together reflect the creative, imaginative and critical maturity and evolution of a civilization.
Not only do they chart out the historical trajectory of the growth of a community, but also, like the many hues of a rainbow, converge to form the ‘white’ light of illumination that irradiates and makes visible the complexities of social systems and practices.
Any original work of creativity or research in arts and humanities is an attempt to comprehend and converse with social processes in its multiple forms through the use of imagination. In their deployment of imagination, these works offer their readers an alternative lens to examine through and gauge reality, a lens that not just invigorates and delights in its artistic richness but is also insightful in its novelty and critical acumen. I contend that these attributes of these disciplines are today more relevant than ever, when the logic of corporate capitalism is insistently re-defining education and research in terms of conformity to industry and economic utility, and our expectations and motivations solely in terms of financial and personal reward systems.
This brings us back to the question of the government and its institutions. In principle, a government is constituted to look after the interests of its people—identified and defined in broad terms. In a poor country like India, the protectionist role of the state is even more important, particularly in the social sector. It has to define priorities, allocate funds for it, and ensure easy accessibility of the results of research and developmental works.
It is possible, indeed, to assign a lot more money to education and research by curtailing waste, checking corruption, rationalizing corporate largesse and tax breaks, and promoting a culture that sees money only as means to an end and not an end in itself. Meanwhile, will the public-private partnership work? I suppose that question is irrelevant. After all, good and socially relevant research is not just an outcome of pelf, but also of conscience, vision and good intentions.